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Pitching, defense lead Braves back to state softball tournament

Menahga relied on pitching and defense in the postseason to advance to the state Class A fastpitch softball tournament.

The Braves qualified for the state tournament for the fourth time in school history by following a 6-1 win over Bertha-Hewitt in last Tuesday's Section 6A semifinals with a 1-0 victory over Parkers Prairie in the Section 6A championship game Thursday night at Pillager.

During the regular season, the Braves went 0-4 against their Park Region Conference rivals en route to a 6-13 record. Menahga was outscored 34-10 in losing to Bertha-Hewitt 4-2 and 18-4 and dropping both games to Parkers Prairie by scores of 6-3 and 6-1.

The section playoffs were a different story as the Braves eliminated Frazee and Lake Park-Audubon by identical 4-0 scores before falling to Hawley 4-2 in the subsection title game. Menahga then avenged losses to Bertha-Hewitt and Parkers Prairie at the section tournament to advance to state.

Going into the section tournament, Parkers Prairie was rated No. 12 and Hawley was ranked No. 14 in the state Class A poll.

"A month ago I wouldn't have believed it," said Menahga head coach Brian Carlson. "We played a super competitive schedule and played a lot of tight games. That got us ready for the playoffs. As the season went on, our maturity level improved. We got hot in the playoffs. Our defense made every play and we allowed only one earned run. We're playing our best ball right now."

A five-run third inning sparked Menahga past Bertha-Hewitt.

Jada Melton walked, Tarah Cleveland put down a sacrifice bunt, Katie Miller was hit by a pitch, Joy Haataja singled, Lindsey White lined a two-run single, Megan Miller had an RBI single, Amelia Pho walked and Jenny Skoog lined an RBI single to give Menahga a 5-0 lead.

After B-H used two errors to score a run in the bottom of the third, Melton walked and Katie Miller had a run-scoring grounder to end the scoring in the fourth.

The Braves were held to five hits with Haataja going 2 for 3. Courtesy runner Paige Skoog scored two runs. White allowed four hits and struck out six for the win.

White pitched another solid game in the championship game, allowing only four hits and retiring 13 of the final 14 batters.

Menahga was held to only three hits, but took advantage of Pho's one-out triple to score the game's only run in the fourth inning. Pho scored the game-winning run on Jenny Skoog's grounder back to the pitcher.

Melton singled in the second and fifth inning to account for the Braves' other hits.

In the five tournament games, White allowed three runs on 18 hits while striking out 45 batters in 34 innings.

The Braves (10-14 overall) open the state Class A tournament against Blooming Prairie (23-2) Thursday at 11 a.m. at Caswell Park in Mankato. Both teams will play again at 5 p.m. with the state tournament concluding Friday.

Joining those two teams in the state tournament are New Ulm Cathedral (22-3), Barnum (23-2), Cherry (23-2), Badger/Greenbush-Middle River (22-3), New Life Academy of Woodbury (19-1) and Wabasso (15-9).

Cherry is ranked No. 1 in the latest state Class A poll, followed by New Ulm Cathedral at No. 2, Barnum at No. 3, New Life Academy at No. 4, Blooming Prairie at No. 5 and Badger at No. 6. Menahga lost to Cherry 1-0 early in the season.

Menahga scored 83 runs this season while allowing 93. The Braves were shut out five times and scored only one run in two other losses.

The Braves will enter state with a .226 team batting average. White has a 10-12 record with 105 hits allowed and 155 strikeouts in 140 innings.

Carlson will use the following starting lineup: Katie Miller (.257 average, 18 runs, nine stolen bases, four RBI) at shortstop, Joy Haataja (.306 average, five runs, two RBI, two stolen bases) in right field, White (.323 average, nine runs, 10 RBI) at pitcher, Megan Miller (.278 average, four runs, 11 RBI) at third base, Pho (.254 average, 13 runs, 11 RBI, two stolen bases) at first base, Jenny Skoog (.123 average, two runs, four RBI) at second base, Emily Skoog (.136 average, five runs) in left field, Melton (.255 average, three runs) at catcher and Cleveland (.176 average, five runs, three stolen bases) in center field. Paige Skoog and Beth Tormanen will be used as courtesy runners.

Menahga will be making its fourth state appearance. The Braves qualified for state in 1998, 2004 and 2007. Carlson is hoping this is the year the Braves break through and win at least one game at state.

"We have a good chance to win our first game," said Carlson. "We're definitely going to be the underdog, but we should be right in this one. If we put things together and score a couple of runs, anything can happen."